A Piece of Islamic History: The Aghlabids and the Conquest of Sicily

This is the third piece in a series, following the article on The naval attacks against the Sicilian Byzantines.

In the year 826, emperor Michael II appointed Constantine as ruler of Sicily. After this, a heated discussion arose between Contantine and the Byzantine admiral Euphemius. The entire argument had started because of a love story. Euphemius had fallen in love with a nun and married her against her own will. Emperor Michael II ordered Constantine to punish him by cutting of his nose. Euphemius received word of this and revolted against the Emperor. He was backed up by the navy. He besieged the city of Syracuse, where he defeated Constantine and had him executed later on.

After this conquest, he named himself emperor. He appointed every decorated soldier to rule over the several parts of the island. Eventually, there was one of those soldiers who turned against him by offering his services to emperor Michael II. His name was, according to Arab historians, Balata. He defeated Euphemius with the support of the emperor and his army. Euphemius had no choice but to escape. According to him, there was no better place to run to than to the enemy: the Aghlabids. He wanted to take revenge on the emperor. As an exchange for his services for the Aghlabids he would want to name himself emperor and pay them the “jizya” (taxes applied by Muslim states on non-Muslim citizens).

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Emir Ziyadat-Allah I and religious commanding officer Asad ibn al-Furat

When Euphemius arrived in Kairouan, he went to the Aghlabid court. He told them his story and pledged his loyalty to them if they would help him defeat the Byzantine emperor in exchange. Ziyadat-Allah I reassured him by telling him he would think about it and answer as soon as possible.

However, Ziyadat-Allah I had other plans: he got the idea to conquer Sicily himself. This was an opportunity served to him on a golden platter. There was one problem though: what would he do with the signed peace treaty? He summoned two great Islamic legal experts from Kairouan: Abu Mahriz Muhammad and qadi Asad ibn al-Furad (“qadi” simply means “Islamic judge”). The emir discussed Euphemius’ proposal with them. The experts both had different opinions. Abu Mahriz thought that the treaty was to be respected and he advised the emir to check the genuineness of Euphemius’ story. Asad ibn al-Furat however, clearly stated to be in favor of jihad. According to him, the Byzantines had broken the treaty long before, because they had imprisoned thousands of Arabs and Muslims. He thought it was time to free them from their Byzantine enemy. In addition to that, he saw this as an excellent opportunity to bring the island under Arab-Islamic rule.

Asad ibn al-Furat and his role in the conquest of Sicily

Asad ibn al-Furat had a prestigious background. According to some sources, he originally came from Harran (in today’s Turkey), but according other sources he came from Mesopotamia (which we now call Iraq and Iran). What we do know for sure is that he moved to Kairouan with his father when he was two years old. He memorized the Quran and studied the fiqh and hadith sciences of different theologists from Kairouan and Tunis. He later became a student of Malik ibn Anas, the founder of the Maliki Law School in Medina. That man read him his famous book, the Muwatta. The book is the first work that discusses and elaborates on the hadith and has been revised several times by Malik ibn Anas himself in forty years’ time. Later, he taught its contents to his students. Asad however thought studying in Medina was sufficient.

In addition to his studies, he went to Iraq where he was educated by the two most famous students of the imam Abu Hanifa, the founder of the Hanafi Law School. Their names: Muhammad al-Shaybani and Aby Yusuf. Asad ibn al-Furat was known as a pious, intelligent, and eloquent scholar who spent his nights praying. He attempted to solve specific legal problems while writing his book named the Asadiyya. After his return he started teaching students who wanted to study the Quran. His popularity grew significantly. He would no longer be afraid when speaking the truth, not even of the emir. Later, he was appointed as qadi of Kairouan by Ziyadat-Allah I.

Thanks to his eloquence, intelligence, and piety, Asad ibn al-Furat could easily influence Ziyadat-Allah. In order to strengthen his opinion, he joined the army voluntarily to go to war. What he didn’t expect was that Ziyadat-Allah would appoint him as army general. He did not lose his position as qadi, though. This was the first time in Arab-Islamic history for a man to be both qadi and commanding officer. It is not unwise to think that Ziyadat-Allah somehow followed the second guided caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab in his footsteps. When Umar wanted to conquer a certain area, he would appoint a companion of the Prophet as general. This companion was selected because of his experience and piety, not necessarily for his military experience. Religion had a significant impact on the army, especially when the general displayed some kind of religious authority. Ziyadat-Allah’s policy required a religious justification. What person could be more suitable for this role than Asad ibn al-Furat? It is important to mention that Asad was a very old man, as he was appointed as general when he was above seventy years old.

The choice of army general was well planned, and so was the attack on Sicily. The army consisted of Arabs, but also Berbers, Spanish Muslims from Crete, and (possibly) Persians. Other religious scholars followed Asad ibn al-Furat in his footsteps and joined the army. According to Arab historians, the army consisted of ten thousand men older than seventy, and one hundred ships. As soon as they arrived at the harbor town of Sousse they went to settle in the “ribat”, which is a type of Islamic convent in which soldiers receive both religious and military education. Asad is said to have given a memorable speech.
“There is no god, except God, for He has no equals! O soldiers, I swear it! Neither my father nor grandfather appointed me to utter this command, nor have I ever known that such event has happened to somebody else. This title concerns my achievements with a pencil, not a sword. I encourage everybody not to spare effort or fatigue whilst seeking knowledge! Seek it, keep it, expand it, be consistent, and be patient with every difficulty which occurs! You are guaranteed a glorious place in this life and luck in the hereafter!”

He clearly states never to have touched a sword during his lifetime. Not only did he encourage the army to fight against the enemy, he stimulated them to expand their knowledge because of God. He the army military skills, but also the Islamic ethics on the rules of warfare.

A historical map of Sicily according to Arab and Islamic geographers.
A historical map of Sicily according to Arab and Islamic geographers.

The conquest of Sicily: Asad ibn al-Furat and the first Islamic footsteps on Sicilian city walls

After Asad ibn al-Furat ended his speech, Euphemius and his army decided to join the military. They arrived in Sicily in 827, in Mazara. Euphemius could find enough support there for their war. The first victory for the Islamic army was against Balata. After his defeat, Balata fled to Castrogiovanni and later to Calabria, where he eventually died. In the meantime, Asad ibn al-Furat continued his advance towards Syracuse. Abu Zaki became his substitute in Mazara. On his way there, he came across Byzantine representatives from Syracuse. They proposed him to pay jizya. This was a scam that they had thought out to allow them to further reinforce their city. When Euphemius discovered that his ambition was failing miserably, he started to secretly create agreements against the Arabs with the Byzantines. As soon as their fortifications were in place, the Byzantines refused to pay jizya. Asad ibn al-Furat tried to besiege the city of Syracuse. However, he had only taken 8,000 soldiers with him and a rather unfit naval unit to conquer a fortified city such as this one. The Byzantines had a large supply of food and beverages to make sure they did not need to fear famine. The Arabs had their difficulties, however.

Because of the famine, several Arab soldiers revolted against Asad ibn al-Furat. This revolt was led by Ibn Qadim and was immediately repressed by Asad. The Arabs kept surrounding the city. More reinforcements came from Ifriqiyya (today’s Tunesia) and from the Arabs on Crete. Similarly, the Byzantines received additional troops from emperor Michael II and from the Venetian Doge Giustiniano Partecipazio. For an entire year, the city was surrounded by Muslim troops. The city’s representatives proposed a treaty but this was immediately rejected by the Muslims. The Arabs suspected it to be a scam again. The longer the Muslims kept besieging the city, the we aker the Byzantines became. The city was almost conquered from the Byzantines. As if it were a miracle, an epidemic prevented this to happen by causing the death of many Arabs, under whom Asad fell too. The man who succeeded to place his footsteps on the island. From his death onwards, the real Islamic expansion has only just begun.
In the next chapter I’ll discuss the conquest of Sicily after the death of Asad ibn al-Furat.

Written by Afifa Thabet

Afifa Thabet

Afifa Thabet is 33 years old. She studied Oriental Languages and Cultures and volunteers as a teacher. She's interested in everything concerning Islamic history and Arab societies.